Sunday, 11 September 2011
‘He’s still alive, I think’
Lucian Freud died in July this year.
‘It’s just a picture, really it’s of a leaf or a few leaves, nothing more. It’s kept here in the Allan Ramsay School of Drawing and it’s by one of your English artists, by a man called Lucian Freud. And it gets me . . . There’s no tricks about it. No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before.’
‘You mean it’s realistic?’
‘No. I mean it’s true . . . I know nothing about the man, but he’s still alive, I think. And someone once said of him, “He’s got a long, unblinking stare.” If I were an artist I’d like them to say that about me.’
The above is from James Kennaway’s The Cost of Living Like This, which I’m re-reading. That novel was published in 1969, the year after Kennaway died at the age of forty. Of course it’s out of print now; Canongate have an omnibus edition of three of Kennaway’s short novels, but really they should be doing more than that. There are many things this post could be about, but first, Kennaway. From Frederick Raphael’s introduction to The Cost: ‘He refused to to make mere literature out of living experience (not his necessarily, but his time’s). He forced life into the page; savour his dialogue and you will feel the barbs still in it, the poison no less than the poise. Watch his characters and you would swear that they were struggling to get off the page.’ Later: ‘The reader may, if he can remain aloof (which I doubt), amuse himself by trying to make cuts in The Cost of Living Like This. I doubt if it’s possible to excise more than, say, a dozen lines.’ Kennaway – ex-soldier, professional (he also wrote screenplays) – could write.
The quoted conversation takes place in Glasgow and is between Mozart (underpaid clarinet-playing football referee) and Christabel, wife of the dying Julian, who is having a tortuous affair with a 19-year-old swimmer (Kennaway specialised in triangles). They never see the Freud painting because the Allan Ramsay college is being occupied by protesting students; the protest turns violent, and someone dies in a fire. I’ve tried to find out which Freud painting Mozart is talking about, but I don’t know. It’s not the one above. (I did discover that after a tiny portrait of Francis Bacon was stolen in Berlin in 1988, Freud allowed its reproduction only in black-and-white; and that another Freud portrait of Bacon sold earlier this year for £23 million.)
I first saw Lucian Freud’s paintings around the time Kennaway was writing, in the city art gallery in Leeds, and I felt like Mozart does. Late teens. Reading rather than looking at art, but these connected. The stark, focused intensity. Always there’s the matter of timing in the reception of art, both historical (a couple of years earlier or later, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger wouldn’t have been the same thing) and personal. Freud went on to become celebrated above all as the painter of flesh, the naked body, but for me this wasn’t it at all, it didn’t matter whether the bodies were clothed or unclothed, it was more to do with isolation and that ‘long, unblinking stare’, and the later Freuds, though I admire them deeply, never had the same impact on me as those early ones in Leeds.
I, and the times – I in the times – have moved on. I still occasionally respond to art, writing, with the same shock of recognition (not necessarily of something I know) as I did in Leeds, but it takes something different: connection rather than isolation, perhaps; blinking, not unblinking. But Kennaway still does it. The opening lines of The Cost of Living Like This: ‘They were painting the gothic corridors of railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no time to die, and it had been raining heavily.’ The first chapter – 42 pages – is a wonder. The other 15 chapters take up just 150-odd pages. It’s one of those novels that, when you stand back, looks to have been artfully constructed, but while you’re reading it makes itself up as it goes along.